Once, a long time ago, when, as a result of one of those complex misunderstandings that cast long shadows over the course of my life, I was getting married in a small town in Connecticut, my father showed up at the church stuffed with promotional literature.  This consisted of leaflets describing his new organization, donation forms, photocopies of articles in the press—in short, everything that anyone who has ever come near political activism in the United States would find painfully familiar.  It was meant to be what they call a big wedding, and my father did not want to miss the chance to work over a large audience of potential supporters.  Moments before the ceremony, my best man stood him against a wall, frisked him, and confiscated all his literature, a procedure to which he submitted peaceably, though with a yellowish glint in his eyes.  Hidden in the trunk of my mother’s car was a fresh load.

Next scene, London.  Whenever we used to run into each other at parties, the writer Taki would always call out to me across a crowded room: “Navrozov, but are you a serious person?”  This was in memory of an afternoon he once spent in conversation with my father, some 30 years ago in New York, not long after we had arrived from Moscow.  Taki was moonlighting for the CIA, and that day’s assignment was to debrief my father.  They strolled back and forth in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, talking Brezhnev, Solzhenitsyn, and whatever else clever people talked about in those balmy days, when suddenly my father followed his interlocutor’s gaze and realized that the intrepid agent of Western intelligence was staring at the legs of a distinctly female passerby, utterly oblivious to what he was telling him.  “Taki,” my father said, “but are you a serious person?”

Not long ago, Taki—who has since become a multimillionaire, in the only way there has ever been of becoming one without losing one’s individuality, to say nothing of one’s sense of smell—found me drinking in the company of a mutual friend, Natasha G——, at a watering hole run down the road from Harry’s Bar.  “He’s in a horrible mood,” she had whispered to me.  “He’s been in Aspinalls two nights running, and he’s down £250,000.”  “Ah, Navrozov!” exclaimed Taki as he joined us, perhaps just a shade more melancholy than usual.  “But are you a serious person?”  A short time later, the Russian photographer Gusov, my distinguished collaborator on Italian Carousel and now the third incorrigible gambler at the table, sat down with us and received the same whispered confidence from Natasha.

That very second, with the tact endemic to our race and his social circle, Gusov slapped Taki on the shoulder and bellowed: “Come on, Taki!  Don’t worry about so little thing!”  Then, to Taki’s visible puzzlement, “OK, you lose £250,000, but you rich man.  I lose £250,000, too, but I’m poor photographer!  They take my house now.  My wife, she left me.  My credit cards, they say they’ll call a police.  But I play.  Any way, I play!  I play if I have to take pictures at children birthdays!  I play if I still have last pound in my pocket!  In Napoleon Casino, Leicester Square, I give you address, people can play with just pound, you know.  You still have pound, right, or Natasha is buying dinner?  And you upset!  Come on, Taki.  You writer, not some kind of business world machine animal worm!”  He went on and on with these syntactically imperfect admonishments, always in the same autobiographical vein.

“Now that,” Taki said to me as the party was breaking up, “is a serious person.”

The other night, drinking at Annabel’s until closing, we again recall Gusov and his impassioned tirade.  I tell Taki that my friend has since gone bankrupt, having lost every penny to the roulette tables of London’s seediest gaming clubs, noting that his attitude to the destiny of the gambler has not become any the less messianic.  And he has fallen in love with an Italian woman, who has left her husband, Prince T—— , a member of one of the world’s most prominent banking families, for a glimpse of that destiny.  He lives from one day to the next, gambling whenever some cash, all too often of the hard-earned kind but preferably not, finds its way into the frayed pockets of his corduroy trousers.  He lives, in short, as an artist ought to live, on love and illusions.

And something else has happened.  After some 20 years of inconsolable longing for motherhood, the faery princess in the mad Russian’s life is now pregnant with his child.  Is this not a suitable reason for more autobiographical bellowing of the pauper-to-prince, or Gusov-to-Taki, kind?  But, more to the point, is this not the supreme vindication of the animating principle of roulette, where prayers are always answered, though not in your own words, and miracles do happen, provided you dare not expect them?  The term genetic roulette has long been established, after all, in the vocabulary of popular science.  We are all of us the offspring of those who have gambled with love.

“When I was poor,” Taki muses, “my playing made much more sense.  As-pi-nalls made more sense.  Now it’s pure ego.  No, I agree with you, roulette is not a game for rich people.  It’s a game for desperate people.”  For serious people, to use that favorite phrase of his, for people like Gusov and my father.  For it is hard not to see a fundamental kinship in the obsessive worldviews of these two men, one a bankrupt gambler and the other an emigré writer who believes that his only son’s wedding in a bucolic corner of northeastern Connecticut is a suitable opportunity for launching a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with the stated purpose of saving Western culture from totalitarian peril.

The longer I live, the more occasions I find to ask myself whether I have inherited my father’s obsessive gene in its pure form: “Am I a serious person?”  It is not a facetious question, nor one that is easily answered in the ordinary circumstances of urban existence.  Sometimes one can get lucky and obtain a definitive answer while taking a headlong plunge into politics, or religion, or some other obsession long on the stamina and short on the money.  Sometimes one needs to spend a few years in the armed forces or at the gaming tables, where one’s mettle is tested to the breaking point.

Sometimes one just has to fall in love